Let’s Go to the (National) Mall: 24 Hours in Washington DC

Washington D.C. typically requires a long weekend to visit properly. However, when given a time constraint, it’s helpful to have a plan in place. Luckily, most of my trips to D.C. occur over a short period, giving me a maximum of about 24 hours to fit as much as I can into the day. So, if you’re looking for a classic walk through D.C., here’s what I recommend:

19424494_10209769113404660_4999474512496128198_nCapitol Building: If you have enough time, start the day with a guided tour of the United States Capitol Building, but be sure to book ahead. D.C. in the early hours is wonderful, especially before the crowds hit the major sites, and since this building functions as both a tourist attraction and government hub it’s best to make this your first stop. Many Congressional offices offer their own guided tour, so you can either book through your Representative, Senator, or on your own. You can find more information through the U.S. Capitol Building’s visitor center.

Memorials: The highlight of any visit to Washington D.C. Whether you are new to the history of America, or a seasoned fun-fact nerd, it’s essential to take some time to visit these iconic memorials. And for us urban hikers, this is the ideal city walk, complete with shaded parks, water features, and plenty of stairs. In total the loop is about five miles if you start at the Capitol Building and head west towards the Washington Monument. The full loop includes stops at the World War II Memorial, walking along the Reflecting Pool to the Vietnam Memorial, up to the Lincoln Memorial, over to the Korean War Memorial and across the street (be careful of cars, this is a busy crossing!) to the MLK, FDR and Jefferson Memorials, all bordering the Tidal Basin.

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Quiet mornings on the National Mall. 

This loop is by far one of my favorites to do either first thing in the morning, or at sunset when the crowds are low. Most of the monuments are open 24/7 (minus the gift shops), so you can enjoy them at your leisure.

 

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Look Up: The National Museum of African American History and Culture has stunning detail outside the building.

Museums: The other highlight of this area is of course the array of museums lining the National Mall. I tend to visit DC in the summer months when by 10 a.m. the sun has already warmed the city sidewalks to unbearable temperatures, which makes walking during the daytime difficult. So, a perfect escape from the heat is to pop into any one of these museums (all National museums are free), where you can learn more about America’s history from the comfort of an air-conditioned space. While it’s nearly impossible to see everything in a day, here’s some of our favorites:

 

  • National Gallery of Art. An underground corridor connects the more traditional West Building to the modern East Building, with highlights from Van Gogh, Degas, David, Vermeer, and Da Vinci. It’s a wonderful museum for art history lovers, as well as for architecture fans looking to explore the space.
  • National Air and Space Museum. This one is perfect for travelers with kids (or kids at heart!). Here you can explore the wonders of aviation and space travel, and see how this has evolved over the years and helped us learn more about the world outside our own.
  • National Museum of American History. Explore Julia Child’s kitchen, U.S. President memorabilia, First Lady dresses and more in this museum dedicated to the life and innovation of Americans. If you want to feel proud of all we’ve accomplished, this is the place to go.
  • National Museum of African American History and Culture. Opened in September 2016, this is the newest museum added to the National Mall. Getting tickets is difficult the day of (unless you arrive and wait in line), so we recommend booking tickets ahead of time. If you can’t get in, we at least suggest taking some time to observe the detail on the building (it is one of the most intricate and beautiful).

Around the Corner: If you haven’t gotten your share of museums yet, you can stray a few blocks outside the National Mall to tour some of the *other* museums in the country. There seems to be theme to each, but here are our favorites:

  • National Archives Museum. The main attraction here is of course the original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. You’ll have to wait in line to get up there since they only allow a certain number of people in each day, but if historical documents are your thing then this is worth the visit.
  • United States Holocaust Museum. I’ve visited this museum many times, and each time I am brought to tears. A well-curated museum, you are transported through the history of the Holocaust, from the start of World War II through the aftermath. You will read stories about survivors, heroes, and those lost, and leave with a reminder of why we must never let something like this happen again. Be sure to take a moment of silence in the room of shoes as well.
  • Newseum. Another favorite for me, this museum chronicles the history of journalism, with special exhibits for different beats, as well as permanent exhibits about 9/11 news coverage, photo galleries, and the outdoor terrace overlooking Washing D.C. (ok not exactly an exhibit, but on a nice day this is a great view!).

Honorable Mention: Arlington Cemetery: Just across the Potomac is the Arlington Cemetery, which welcomes tourists during the day to pay respects at the final resting place of many of America’s military men and women, as well as John F. Kennedy and his family. If you have family buried here, use the cemetery’s website to locate a grave, or reach out to their customer service for help. And remember, this is a burial ground, so be respectful when walking through.

Boston Wanderings: Your Guide to Our Favorite Spots Off the Freedom Trail

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Heading west through the Boston Common.

Corner any local in Boston and ask them what you should do on your visit to this city, we guarantee 9 out of 10 times the Freedom Trail will be a part of their answer. That’s because when it comes to Boston, the city has made a name for itself in walking tours. But for those visitors who want to get a nice walk in with a little less history, we’ve put together a route that hits all the best spots.

 

TIP: Boston’s streets are old, so there are two things to remember when you hike. First, when it comes to shoes, choose function over fashion—you’ll be walking along stone, brick, and cobbled streets, so a comfortable pair of shoes will get you a lot farther (I’ve lost a few good pairs to these streets before). And second, make sure you have a map and/or GPS on your phone—Boston streets are winding and can get confusing at times, so without some guidance you might end up walking in circles.

North End: We start our non-Freedom Trail walk on the Freedom Trail (ok, yes we admit that is a bit confusing). While this historic neighborhood is home to some of the top Revolutionary sites in the city, it is also home to some of the most delicious food. Take a moment to wander through the Old North Church, and onto Hanover Street, where you can pick up some snacks for later—cheese, charcuterie, cannoli, they’ve got it all! (Note: This is home to the famed Mike’s Pastry. We try to get there early to beat the lines, but you can stop by at any time to get your Italian bakery fix if you’re ok waiting in line.)

Faneuil Hall and the North End Park: Over the years, Boston has made more of an effort to increase its green spaces in the city. One such example is the North End Park, which has become a staple for both locals and visitors in the summer months. Here, you can lay out a blanket and have a picnic (stop by the Boston Public Market for other food options), play in the water fountains, or sit at one of the tables and read before continuing on. Just south of the park you’ll find one of Boston’s top attractions—Faneuil Hall. Here, you can shop, eat, grab a snack, or just wander through and catch a street performance.

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The Massachusetts State House lights up at night.

The Boston Common: Climb the stairs past Boston’s concrete City Hall (a product of 1960’s geometric design and often described as one of the ‘Ugliest Buildings in America’), and turn left onto Tremont street. Follow the curve until you reach a large open green space. This spot, known as Boston’s Common, has existed since colonial times and was once grazing land for Boston’s livestock. Look north to spot the gold-domed State House, the hub of Massachusetts’ government, and continue west past the Frog Pond, which in summer months is a swimming spot for children, and in the winter transforms into a fun ice skating rink.

TIP: Before you walk through here, read up on the famously obese squirrels—they are adorable!

 

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Beacon Hill: North of the Common, one of our favorite areas to walk is Beacon Hill. Here, you’ll see the true historic beauty of Boston’s architecture, with brick streets and brownstone homes lit by picturesque street lamps—you feel like you’re taking a step back in time. Wandering through here doesn’t take long, but it’s a must-see for architecture and history nerds.

 

Boston Public Garden: From Beacon Hill, turn left onto Charles Street heading back towards the Public Garden. One of our favorite stops is the Make Way for Ducklings statue, commemorating the 1941 illustrated book by Robert McCloskey about a family of ducks that trekked through the city in the most adorable way. If you’re looking for real ducks, head over to the pond and watch the swans and ducks swim around, or if it’s the right season, take a ride around the pond on one of Boston’s swan boats.

Newbury Street and Copley Square: By now you’ve walked a few miles through historic Boston, so you’ll be in need of some refreshments. Wander down Newbury Street for a taste of high end shopping plus a selection of restaurants. One street over is Boylston, which brings you to the heart of Copley Square and some of our favorite Boston Landmarks—Trinity Church, Boston Public Library, the Prudential Center—there’s plenty to do in that space.

TIP: When on Boylston Street, be sure to look for the Boston Marathon Finish Line (in front of Marathon Sports), but be careful of cars when snapping photos!

Five Tips for the Solo Traveler

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Coffee: The solo traveler’s best friend.

I was sitting in a restaurant one evening in Paris—the dining room was snug, with tables packed in to fit as many people as possible. I was alone, jotting down details of my day in my journal and slowly sipping a glass of red wine. In the time it took me to go through my meal, I conversed briefly with three couples who came and went from the tables to either side of me. And with each conversation, there was one comment that all three made about my travels.

“You are traveling by yourself? How brave!”

Traveling by yourself isn’t that scary though, especially when in a big city. To me, solo travel offers me a chance to unwind and catch up on thing I love, all on my own time. Paris was a place that was high on my list, and to be able to experience it in a way that was perfectly catered to me, it made my experience that much more memorable.

Of course, there are times that traveling alone gets tough—eating on your own can get lonely, but you can also push yourself to be more outgoing (something I often struggle to do in my day to day routine) and make friends with other travelers. Solo travel gives you a chance to make an experience that is all your own, but it helps to have a few tips before you head out there.

1. Take Some Extra Time to Plan

When traveling alone, especially as a woman, I find it gives my family some peace of mind if I put together an itinerary so they know where I will be on my travels. This means including any hotel addresses and phone numbers, tour company information (if you plan to do a tour), and any train/plane information as you move from one place to another. Beyond that, when traveling solo you have a chance to see and do exactly what you want so researching your destination ahead of time and making plans makes the anticipation that much more fun.

2. Learn to Read a Map

I still travel like it’s 2008 (pre-iPhone, reliant on paper maps and the occasional Internet café). Technology has definitely made traveling easier, especially since now you can buy temporary international plans to use maps, text, post to Instagram, etc., and WiFi access in most hotels makes it easier to keep in touch with friends and family at home, but I still find it so appealing to switch my phone to airplane mode and use a paper map and guidebook to travel around a new city. This does require a moment of letting go—once you switch that phone over to ‘might as well be dead’ mode, you have to rely on your skills to navigate the old-fashioned way. Same goes if your phone dies while out for the day—it’s important to always know where you are, so learn the basics.

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Solo trips take you places you never expected. I fell in love with Bayeux on my last trip to France. 

3. Make New Friends

You’re traveling solo, but you don’t have to be alone. For younger travelers, hostels are a great way to make new friends and meet fellow solo travelers. Taking a day tour is another great way to interact with people. For me, in my day to day life I tend to be more introverted, but when traveling alone I have to force myself to be more social. Surprisingly, that little push has led to some lifelong friendships, and it makes my travel experiences so rewarding.

4. Reach Out to Old Friends

Even if you haven’t spoken in years, when traveling to a city where you know someone, take the moment to reach out. I guarantee 95 percent of the time they will be thrilled to meet up. Whether they live there, or in some cases, happen to be traveling there at the same time as you, it gives you a chance to catch up and get some good advice for when you are exploring the city later on.

5. Enjoy Your Time Alone

Solo travel isn’t for everyone, but if you decide to take a trip on your own, you will learn more about yourself than you ever thought possible. Take advantage of the time alone to see and do what you love—this trip is just for you, so make the most of it.

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A rare photo of the author, jet lagged but excited to be here 😀

Bergen Weekend: Winter Edition

As someone who thrives on the healing powers that hiking and nature can provide, it was no surprise to me that Norway was high on my list. Did I plan to make my first visit in the dead of winter? No, but then again life loves to throw unpredictable curve balls (and very cheap flights!) my way, so my first taste of Norway was a chilly one.

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Our hike up to Fløyen quickly became snowy and icy–could have used some microspikes for this trek!

I stayed in Bergen, which is a hiker’s dream paradise. With the peaks of Ulriken and Fløyen towering over the homes built into the cliffsides overlooking the harbor, residents and visitors can be on a hiking trail in a short amount of time. (NOTE: For those travelers who don’t enjoy long and steep walks in new cities, Bergen can be pretty rough. But then again, you are reading a blog about urban hiking, so you have to expect that our featured destinations will involve some uphill climbs.). It’s also important to mention that for residents, the work-life balance was based more on the weather versus the hours of the day. If, for example, the weather on a Tuesday provides perfect ski conditions, it is acceptable to slip out early, especially if the rest of the week looks dreary (my kind of lifestyle!). And on the weekends? Forget seeing people in the town, everyone will be out in the mountains.

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View of Bergen from the top of Fløyen.

On this particular visit, I managed to knock a few big wanderings off the list. Day one we climbed to the top of Fløyen and rode the cable car down. This was my first adventure after landing in the morning, so it not only gave me a chance to explore the city, but it also got my blood pumping as I fought jet lag fatigue. The hike took a few hours, with minimal stops except to veer off the trail to certain lookout points for a bird’s eye view of the city below. One difficulty we faced was as we got higher above the city, the trails became quite icy. In January, weather can be unpredictable—while I was visiting, Bergen temperatures remained just above freezing, so it made for wet and icy hiking. A few days after I left, the city was hit with a few strong snow storms, making any hikes up the mountain into a snow shoe excursion. So be prepared for all types of weather if you plan to still hike in the winter.

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Bryggen is a great starting point for any walk through Bergen, and you can easily spot it once you get into the mountains.

For a little less stress on our knees, we took advantage of some free time to wander the streets of Bergen, which is a great afternoon trek for urban hikers. Start at Bryggen, an UNESCO World Heritage site dating as far back as the 14th century. You’ve probably seen photos of these pointed, colorful houses that during the week offer tourists pricey shopping and plenty of Instagram opportunities. From here, head southwest, circling the harbor and popping into the Fjellskål fish market to get a glimpse of the local catches of the day. From there, head northeast up to the aquarium, stopping finally at the Nordnesparken to take in the spectacular views of the fjords.

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Bergen has so many cute little side streets that take you back in time. Be sure to pause for moment like this. 

If you’re into creepy, abandoned old towns (like me), then visiting the Old Bergen Museum in the winter is perfect for you. Located in the northern coastal hills of Bergen, this area is designed to look like the city’s original fishing homes centuries ago. In peak tourism season, these little homes provide tourists with shops, restaurants and historical exhibits they can explore, but in the winter, it is nothing more than closed doors and empty streets.

While visiting Bergen in the winter does mean that some of the main city attractions will be closed, it’s important to take that opportunity to ‘do as the locals do’ and get out of the city. Even without a car, you can easily take a bus to skiing out in Kvamskogen or horse riding in the mountains, making the most of your snowy visit.

Basilica Hopping in Florence

As the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence has become a destination for art lovers, foodies, and the religious alike. With so much history around every corner, it’s easy to miss something when wandering the city’s cobble stone streets. But you don’t have to be a person of faith to appreciate the wonders of Florence’s many basilicas—with so many grandiose structures in a small footprint of the city, it’s easy to dedicate a day to see them all (with stops for gelato of course!). For this tour, we start at the Santa Maria Novella, located right by Florence’s main train station.

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Florence renovated the courtyard in front of Santa Maria Novella, creating the perfect spot for a picnic lunch.

Santa Maria Novella: ‘Novella’ translates literally to ‘New,’ identifying this church as the first true great basilica of Florence. Commissioned by the wealthy textile merchant Rucellai family, this basilica was designed by architect Leon Battista Alberti and constructed between 1448 and 1470. It’s most prominent feature is of course the elaborate facade design that overlooks the courtyard, but be sure to visit inside to spectate Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, an early Renaissance fresco that brought perspective back in vogue.

Basilica di San Lorenzo: Our next stop takes us down Via Sant’Antonio and then turning towards Via de’ Gori, right to the façade of the Basilica de San Lorenzo, a final resting place for some of Florence’s most powerful patrons. What detail the outside of this church lacks is made up for inside, with its iconic white and gold ceiling. While much of the church’s design is credited Filippo Brunelleschi, it is not entirely of his doing. However, the true gem of this church and must-see for all visitors is the Cappelle Medicee (Medici Chapel), with Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florence’s golden child, designing the marble statues adorning the tombs of Guiliano di Lorenzo de’Medici and Lorenzo di Piero de’Medici.

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PIT STOP: For true Michelangelo fans, be sure to visit the Laurentian Library, an extension of San Lorenzo and a perfect example of Michelangelo’s renaissance architecture design with its oversized staircase and reading room.

LUNCH BREAK: Hungry and looking for something authentically Italian? Visit the Mercato Centrale, located on Via dell’Ariento, right around the corner from the Basilica de San Lorenzo. Here, you can eat at the take-out counters, or buy a variety of fresh fruit, meats, cheeses, and more to create a picnic. Staying at a place with a kitchen? Buy your ingredients here and cook at home!

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Walking along the streets of Florence, you can always catch a glimpse of Brunelleschi’s Dome.

Santa Maria del Fiore (The Duomo): As you walk the streets of Florence, there is one landmark you can always pick out. Whether you are hiking in the hills above the city, or catching glimpses of the great dome from Florence’s narrow streets, you can’t miss the city’s main attraction. Towering above the city, the most prominent feature of this basilica is of course its dome—designed by Filippo Brunelleschi after winning a contest to design it. The story goes, that while the Gothic Revival base of the church was built in the 1200s, it was left uncovered because the opening was too large for a traditional dome. And because the Florentines would rather die than see its beloved church supported by flying buttresses a la French Gothic design, they commissioned any eligible architect to find a solution. Thus comes in Brunelleschi, who designed a dome inside a dome (a double dome!) to top the structure. Today, you can climb the 463 steps and actually walk between the two domes to reach the top for spectacular views of the city and the surrounding hills of Tuscany.

ALTERNATE CLIMB: If the dome seems daunting, you can also climb the bell tower, designed by Renaissance heavyweight Giotto. It’s still quite a climb though, but at only 414 steps you’ll save that bit of energy for more walking later.

PIT STOP: All that dome climbing will absolutely make you hungry, so as you make your way over to the Santa Croce basilica, stop at famous gelateria Grom at the corner of Via del Campanile and Via delle Oche. It’s a popular spot, and once you have your first bite you’ll know exactly why.

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Santa Croche at sunset.

Basilica di Santa Croce di Firenze: You’ll have to pull your map out for this one—heading south towards the Arno River, take your time to explore the winding streets as you make our way to the smaller but dazzling Basilica di Santa Croce. Translated as “The Sacred Cross,” this church is a part of the Franciscan order and still has a functioning cloister. However, the true draw to this church is its collection of Renaissance history—here, you can view works by Giotto, Donatello, Cimabue, and Vasari, or pay respects at the tombs of famous Florentines including Michelangelo, Alberti, Galileo, Ghiberti, and Machiavelli.

San Minato Church: High above the city on a hill on the south bank of the Arno is the ever-popular Piazzale Michelangelo. For urban hikers, this is a true challenge as you climb the stairs up to the peak, but the view is worth it. From here, you get a full glimpse of the city, with the Santa Maria del Fiore watching over it. I love visiting this spot at sunset, but for the purpose of this walk, be sure to get there before 7 p.m. to visit the San Minato al Monte, a small Romanesque church near the Piazzale, and then venture over to the lookout point to watch the day end.